Modelling a New Normal: Social Distancing’s Impact on Land Use

Calendar 18 Jun 2020
Time 4.00 pm – 4.40 pm, GMT+8 
Location Zoom
cpd1 SILA CPD Pts, 2 SIP CPD Pts 
BOA-SIA members: no lectures or webinars will award CPD points this year as CPD requirements are waived


With Covid-19 upending our lives, what would cities look like in the near future? How does new behaviour such as social distancing affect intercity rail and train networks, road systems, and public transport? Will cities expand or shrink, and what would new urban densities look like?

Prof. Michael Batty will share how QUANT (Quantitative Urban ANalyTics) models land transport networks for an entire nation, at the scale usually used to analyse individual cities. This model predicts the trends on commuting, employment and residential patterns in cities across the United Kingdom, and paints a picture of what could possibly be the new normal for UK cities.

Webinar Video



Slides by Prof. Michael Batty (PDF: 3.8MB)

Webinar Takeaways


“All models are wrong, but some are useful”

Professor Michael Batty began his presentation by noting “nothing could have prepared us for what happened as a result of the pandemic.” Scientific models need to be modified and new attributes added to ensure relevance, especially in times of extreme events. He felt we should use more than one model as “it hedges our bets.” Ms Hwang Yu-Ning added that “the model may not provide all the answers but it’s starting to point us to some of the possible implications and helping us to create more informed decisions.” Here are six takeaways from the CLC webinar ‘Modelling a New Normal: Social Distancing’s Impact on Land Use’ on 18 June 2020.

Deep structures: return of the old normal.

Deep structures: return of the old normal

Models can’t predict the future, but they let us consider scenarios. With the Covid-19 pandemic, one possibility is a return to our old normal. Professor Batty noted “if a vaccine were to be produced then probably within the next year we would begin to return to the kind of normal that we had before the pandemic, I don’t think there is any doubt about that. The structures are very deep in some respects to how we organise things prior to the pandemic.”When scales collide

When scales collide: distancing’s potential impact on travel

We must confront how two-meter distancing impacts the carrying capacity of transportation vehicles, especially for longer journeys by train or air. A sustained fall of say 85% in such capacity has enormous implications for road gridlock, personal mobility, economic activity, infrastructure investments, and carbon emissions, amongst others. 

Duration of proximity

Duration of proximity: a critical factor

Counter-intuitively, safe distancing in supermarkets may not reduce disease spread, partly as people then spend more time together. Ms Hwang noted the risk of transmission in public transit within cities appeared lower partly because of the shorter travel durations, unlike travel between cities. Professor Batty said time had not been factored into their models, but needed to be; “time is a really important issue.”

Mitigating the spread of the virus

Mitigating the spread of the virus

Professor Batty said that the sustained impact of Covid-19 on land use depends on our evolving understanding of the virus, how it spreads, and how we might mitigate this. Ms Hwang added a “pragmatic, balanced approach based on medical advice” and “steps like wearing masks, trying to maintain the cleanliness of the system, and also personal and social responsibility” can also mitigate the risk in city transit systems.

Sustainable world

“We still need to think about a more sustainable world”

Recalling statistician George Box’s famous quote “All models are wrong, but some are useful”, Professor Batty noted that models cannot predict the future, but they help us understand the implications of our plans. “We still need to think about more sustainable cities, cities which increase our quality of life. We still need to think very much about how we plan for this… and how we plan requires informed thinking about the future.”

Future of offices

Future of offices: “the picture is very confused”:

Anecdotal evidence suggests “we don’t know very much about… how offices are occupied during the working day”. It was initially thought that 10,000 people were inside the World Trade Centre when was destroyed on 11th September 2001, but it later emerged only 3,000 people were there. While many offices in global cities “are prestige locations where face to face contact is important [and] it may be that they have that kind of value,” Professor Batty felt “we need a rethink of what offices are for… if people do begin to work at home to any real extent… there will be major changes.”  


About the Speakers



Prof. Michael Batty CBE

Bartlett Professor of Planning, University College London
Chairman, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis

Michael Batty CBE is Bartlett Professor of Planning at University College London. He has pioneered the digital science of cities over many years as in his recent books The New Science of Cities (2013) and Inventing Future Cities (2018). He has been Professor of City Planning and Dean at the University of Cardiff and Director of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In 1995, he joined UCL to set up the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA). He is a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) and the Royal Society (FRS).



Hwang Yu-Ning

Chief Planner
Urban Redevelopment Authority

Yu-Ning is currently the Chief Planner, a role in which she oversees the urban planning of Singapore. She is also a Deputy Chief Executive Officer with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Singapore’s land use planning and conservation authority. Beyond the URA, she has served various roles in the public service including with the Strategy Group of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the Ministry of National Development and in URA. She is a global governing trustee with the Urban Land Institute (ULI). In Singapore, co-chairs ULI Women’s Leadership Initiative and serves as a National Council executive committee member. She is a board member of the Science Centre Board and the IJ Board of Management and sits on the scientific advisory committee for the research project “Natural Capital Singapore”.

Yu-Ning studied architecture at the National University of Singapore and has a Master in Public Policy & Urban Planning degree from Harvard University.



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